Researchers Go Wild For Spring 2016 Collection!

Spring in New England means right whales feast upon large blooms of zooplankton in Cape Cod Bay (CCB) and the nearby Great South Channel, which allows data hungry research teams to get a lot of work done! The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) runs dedicated aerial surveys to cover CCB from December to May, and collects water samples to monitor habitat conditions. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) surveyed the Great South Channel and surrounding waters by vessel and plane; they are still at it, actually, and still finding whales! Additionally, teams from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), New England Aquarium and NEFSC conducted research from vessels in the Bay.

The crew from Center for Coastal Studies on R/V Shearwater doing habitat monitoring work on April 25, as a whale feeds at the surface. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, are a form of technology that researchers are currently experimenting with as a new collection method, and two research vessels were successfully able to launch drones around right whales this Spring. Members from our team were lucky enough to join a few trips with the WHOI and NOAA crew as they used a hexicopter drone to collect images for photogrammetry, which will help with the health analysis of individual right whales.

Reaching up to catch the returning drone after the mission in Cape Cod Bay. Photo by Veronique LaCapra. Copyright: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The team also used the drone to collect blow samples for genetic and microbiome analysis, similar to a study WHOI did last year with humpback whales! We already know the photos taken with the drone are absolutely stunning and will be incredibly useful to the Catalog, but we're looking forward to learning about their findings from using this new tool.

Overhead aerial view of a right whale at the surface, taken with the hexicopter. Photo by John W. Durban. Research approach of whales using the hexicopter was authorized by NMFS permit #17355 and flights were authorized under an MOU between NOAA and the FAA (Class G MOU #2016-ESA-3-NOAA).  Copyright: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For the remainder of the season, we joined up with members of a NEFSC team with a special goal in mind: to collect biopsy samples from right whales. An arrow with a specialized tip which collects a small plug of blubber and skin is shot at the whale's body using a crossbow. Even though it sounds rough, the vast majority of whales display little or no reaction to this, and the spot heals over quickly. The scientific gains from this endeavor, however, are HUGE. From one sample, we are able to confirm who the mother is (rarely, a calf will become adopted by a different mother), discover who the father is, and determine the sex. The newly darted individual gets added to this database, which will help determine any offspring he/she has in the future, as well help match it to a dead animal through a skin or bone sample collected from a carcass. Genetics has also helped scientists estimate the original size of the population before commercial hunting (it's not as high as previously believed!), and even tell us how few calving females there were at the population's lowest point. All of this information is available to us through the hard work of the amazing geneticists associated with Saint Mary's University and Trent University.

The biopsy arrow hits the whale and immediately bounces off the body with a sample. The collection tip of the arrow is very small in relation to the size of the whale. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom, NEFSC/NEAq under NOAA Research Permit #17355-1.

Since the late 80's, over 503 individual right whales (71% including non-catalogued individuals) have been genetically sampled, which is insanely impressive for any wild population. The majority of calves are sampled when they are with their mothers in the Southeast, and non-sampled calves and adults would be darted during the summer in the Bay of Fundy. However, plenty of individuals remain on our "wanted" list, and since Cape Cod Bay (CCB) has been utilized by so many whales recently, we decided to head there to see if we could be successful in finding the whales we needed. Thankfully we were, and obtained two very exciting samples! One of these came from the single calf that hadn't been biopsied in the Southeast this winter (shoutout to the teams who sampled all the other calves!), as well as a non-catalogued whale currently known by the code BK01GSC14. This whale has only been photographed eight times since 2010, and only in CCB and the Great South Channel.

We'll finally get to unlock the mystery that is BK01GSC14, thanks to genetics! Photo: Marilyn Marx, NEFSC/NEAq under NOAA research permit #17355-1.
Who will be revealed as the parents of this whale? It will take time to get the results from the lab, so until then we remain curious and look forward to crossing more individuals off our "wanted" list as we encounter loads of right whales this summer (*fingers crossed*).



Catching up on Winter 2016

Whew! For those of you who have been paying attention to the subject of right whales in the news, you know that the past few months have kept researchers on their toes! Let's dive in and get everyone up to speed, first with the Southeast Season. Stay tuned for our Spring season update next!


Each winter, pregnant females (along with others) swim to the shallow waters off Florida and Georgia to give birth. To photo-document and to alert mariners to the presence of these particularly vulnerable mother and calf pairs, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Sea To Shore Alliance, University of North Carolina Wilmington, and Marineland Florida flew aerial surveys. Additionally, FWC, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Duke University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Florida Atlantic University, and NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center conducted research from vessels. Finally, Marine Resources Council had a team of volunteers searching for right whales from land. Pretty impressive list of teams, right?

Catalog #4094 and her one day old calf swim off the coast of Georgia. Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

This year, the teams documented 14 calves between the first of December and the end of March. The first calves were discovered on December 10th and the last on February 17th. Four of the mothers were first timers including a precocious six-year-old whale, Catalog #4094 (right whales give birth to their first calf on average at 10 years of age; the youngest was five). There were also some older, experienced mothers such as Punctuation (#1281- at least 34 years old, seen with her eighth known calf) and #1233 (at least 42 years old, seen with her sixth calf). Overall, it was a quiet season with only 20 different whales identified (not including the calves) and no young juveniles seen. In the 2000’s, most of the younger juveniles were seen annually in the region, and the total number of whales documented ranged from 150 to 200. Quite a difference!

The general public had the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of a mother calf right whale without ever squeezing into a tiny plane like observers do, thanks to Clipper (#3450) and her calf’s two-day excursion into the Indian River near Sebastian, FL. In early February the pair made their way into the inner coastal water way where they remained for over 24 hours. Word spread and many people were able to see them from land. When they finally made their way out of the Indian River the following day, some lucky spectators were able to watch from the Sebastian Inlet Bridge as the pair passed under the bridge and back out into the ocean.

Clipper and her calf swim along the bank of the Sebastian Inlet. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

The joy of seeing young whales born into to the population was tempered by seeing two adult females in very poor health: Cherokee (#3670) and Quatro (#1968). Cherokee, born in 2006 to Piper (#2330), had first been seen with her injuries a year earlier- massive wounds on her head and tail from an entanglement, with a portion of her right lower lip torn off. She was seen in the Southeast just once in December 2015, looking thin and with extensive skin lesions.

Cherokee showing extensive damage to her right lip. Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.
Quatro was born in 1989. We're all quite familiar with her as she is a regular visitor of the major habitats. We were shocked when she was seen in January and February, emaciated and with baleen sticking out of her closed mouth. As there were no gross signs of injury visible, it is unknown what exactly happened to her, though the unusual protrusion of baleen hints that maybe something happened to her jaw or head. Sadly, the prognosis for both whales is poor.

Quatro was last seen on February 23, 2016. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

On a happier note, many of the mothers and calves successfully made their way to the northern feeding grounds this spring. Look for an update on them and other whales in our next blog.

-Philip Hamilton